Anarchy, technology, and community: Some thoughts on The Dawn of Everything

A year or so ago I read The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. At the time I jotted down a few notes, and it has taken me this long, I’m afraid, to beat them into something like coherence. Hey, it’s about 40,000 years of human history: what’s another thirteen months?

I won’t attempt a summary or a proper review; for an overview of the work I recommend this review from Science News.

The authors observe, from archaeological and historical evidence, that humans long ago constituted their societies in a dazzling variety of ways, and indeed reconstituted themselves thoughtfully, deliberately, and relatively often, perhaps to ward off inequality or escape an authoritarian system. As my own study of history goes back only a few hundred years professionally and at most a thousand years in amateur terms, I’m not in a position to disagree with anyone’s meta-analysis of archaeological evidence. I do worry that it reads like a book heavily informed by, and perhaps at least partly driven by, present political concerns, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong, only that I’m wary.

I do, however, want to dissent from the authors’ optimism—that is, their belief that if our ancestors thought creatively about politics and radically changed their situations, we ought to be able to do the same. We are limited, structurally, in ways our ancestors could not. They could pack up and leave a society they didn’t like: we can’t, for there are no longer any margins to speak of. They could play with agriculture for millennia without domesticating their crops and inducing mutual dependence, but that genie is out of the bottle now. I could go on.

Maybe the simplest objection is that what looks like a rapid change in deep history or the archaeological record may have seemed a terribly long time to those who lived through it. Reading about the sundry ways people have thoughtfully organized themselves in the past (and about how deliberately and thoughtfully they seem to have done so) gives me hope that, when this civilization falls and 99 percent of the people on the planet die, the remaining few will be able to come up with something better than Mad Max, indeed to lay a foundation for a far better future. But I’m not sure most people would consider that statement optimistic.

In any case, quibbling about hope and hopelessness is boring. So let’s talk about something else.

The authors observe that for most of our existence, humans have taken three freedoms for granted:

  1. the freedom to move about
  2. the freedom to disobey orders
  3. the freedom to change one’s social relations.

Each of these is largely if not entirely lost in modern life. I can move about only according to certain rules, if I have the money to do so, and only within national borders. If I expect to have a job, i.e. to eat, I will have to obey orders, to say nothing of what happens if I run a red light trying to move about and then refuse to obey orders when the police chase me. And while we have a legalistic “freedom of assembly,” no group of people is free to simply secede from the rest and manage their own affairs in their own way. What we consider our “free society” is by deep-historical standards outrageously restrictive, and what the great majority of humans until relatively recently in our existence have taken for granted, we find unimaginable.

Suppose we wanted to regain those freedoms. What would be required?

I would observe that all three freedoms can only operate with certain structures in place. Much of what I could say about that is arguable, and much the authors have already address. I want to tease out two ideas, relating to charity and technology.

First, consider that (as the authors acknowledge) to travel a long distance requires that you have some expectation of being accommodated at the end of your journey. The freedom to move about thus requires a common and widespread culture of hospitality. People must be willing to care for the stranger and sojourner if that freedom is not to be a dead letter. Charity, at least in this case, is a precursor to freedom.

The authors also note, briefly and in a concluding section, that one origin of kingship may have been in a kind of emergency backup charity, when “play kings,” whose roles were largely ceremonial and who had little if any day-to-day power, took in those who could not find care and shelter elsewhere. Widows became wives and orphans became children, the royal household grew, and kings gained power. Someone, I would observe, has to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. To conflate the warnings of Samuel and Isaiah, if y’all don’t take care of the widow and the orphan, you’ll get kings, and then you’ll be sorry.

Again, charity is a precursor to freedom. Or perhaps charity has too many overtones of institutional management; think of it etymologically, deriving from caritas, which means something more like care activated by love. So instead let’s refer to care, and since care has to be mutual and communal, it’s fair to say that communities of care must exist in order for people to be genuinely free of top-down, restrictive authority.

If, therefore, we want to regain the freedoms that the authors see as our birthright, we ought to focus first on building communities of care. The politics can come later, except inasmuch as it’s necessary to conserve and reclaim margins where people can actively, directly care for one another.

Second, I note that in order to reconstitute a society to avoid certain outcomes, e.g. inequality or top-down authority, as people seem repeatedly to have done throughout history, often requires eschewing a given technology, or least keeping it at arm’s length. Many societies practiced agriculture as a supplement to hunting and fishing, without allowing themselves to become entirely dependent on it, whether by avoiding domesticating their crops, by keeping their populations within the carrying capacity of their ecosystems, or other means. Some, including the builders of Stonehenge, appear to have adopted cereal agriculture and then abandoned it. Similarly the authors observe that it has been possible for cultures to invent the wheel, the steam engine, and gunpowder in a spirit of play, and then to keep them in a spirit of play without allowing them to become means by which some people dominate others.

So it’s clear that humans are capable of debating and judging the social, political, cultural, and psychological impacts of a given technology, then limiting its use or giving it up entirely if they don’t like what they see. Given our collective frustration with and dependence on the internet, that might be a cause for optimism.

But there are cases where technological change acts as a ratchet, and we cannot go back. Seven billion people cannot be hunter-gatherers. The knowledge that sustained humanity in prior millennia—the surprisingly complex technology, I might say, by which they fed themselves—is lost to us. Most terrestrial ecosystems are so altered that such knowledge would likely be useless anyway. Most of the wild crops that once sustained humans have been domesticated and can no longer even reproduce themselves without continued intervention. Our choices about how to feed ourselves are, in short, quite limited.

When we can choose, it may be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible to choose alone. The Old Order Amish have done made conscious, active choices about technology use for a hundred years. Amish households in Pennsylvania adopted the telephone, for example, before deciding they didn’t like its impact on their communities. But the Amish had religious faith to stiffen their backbones. And they make their choices about technology use communally, in communities committed, at least in principle, to caring for one another, to supporting one another in their collective choices, indeed to enforcing those choices for the good of the community.

So the two issues, community and technology, seem to be interrelated. And that, I think, is tremendously important as we confront the technological problems of our present society.